The father of the atomic bomb warned the Red Army could roll over Europe unless the U.S. stockpiled nukes but he was ignored and blackballed. I saw the top-secret danger myself in 1951.
With Russia playing a new game of dangerous brinkmanship – at least 40 scary incidents in the skies with NATO air defenses in the past eight months – it may seem like a Cold War replay. But things were once a lot closer to the brink than most people knew. I knew: Nuclear Armageddon was staring me in the face on a daily basis. Documents marked “Cosmic Top Secret” passed over my desk. They were military assessments of the Soviet Army’s order of battle in Europe. There was, I soon realized, nothing to stop Soviet tanks rolling over the central European plain and all the way to the North Sea coast.
This was not a war game. It was real.
It was 1951 and I was a conscript serving in the Royal Air Force. By pure chance I had been posted to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers in Europe, SHAPE, on the outskirts of Paris. I was of extremely low rank, a Senior Aircraftman – only one rung above the bottom. Nonetheless, here I was sitting only two offices away from the very top, the office of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander himself.
In 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father” of the atomic bomb, had his security clearance revoked and his long and distinguished career as a physicist was prematurely terminated. This was at the height of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt of alleged communists in high places. Oppenheimer was suspected of being a Soviet mole on the basis of his associations in the 1930s – his brother and wife had been communist party members, as were many intellectuals of the day.
The accusation was rubbish. Oppenheimer’s work at Los Alamos in the 1940s had given the U.S. nuclear dominance. And now, after 60 years, the disgraceful falsity of the charge has finally been confirmed.
Transcripts from hearings held by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954 have recently been declassified and studied by scholars. The villain turns out to have been Oppenheimer’s mendacious rival physicist, Edward Teller. He told the hearing of Oppenheimer: “I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.”
In fact, Teller was competing with Oppenheimer for resources. Richard Rhodes, author of a history of Teller and his mission to build the Hydrogen Bomb, told The New York Times that Oppenheimer was worried about a ground war in Europe and that the U.S. urgently needed to stockpile atomic weapons to deter Soviet attack. Producing one H-bomb would have diverted enough resources to produce 80 atomic warheads.
In 45 pages of declassified testimony, Walter G. Whitman, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s advisory body, said of Oppenheimer: “…his advice and his arguments for a gamut of atomic weapons…has been more productive than any other one individual.”
The Energy Department, successor to the Atomic Energy Commission, has not explained why it has taken so long to release papers that would vindicate Oppenheimer and show that he was among those who knew how precarious NATO’s defenses were.
Read more at I Saw Nuclear Armageddon Sitting on My Desk